09/18/97 - 10:45 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Deal may be near for campaign money bill

WASHINGTON - Supporters of bipartisan legislation to overhaul campaign finance laws staged intense negotiations with Senate Republican leaders Thursday to bring a modified bill to the floor for a vote. One chief sponsor, Sen. John McCain, said agreement could be reached Friday.

The talks failed to immediately yield a date for the bill to be called up, though participants from both sides said it would likely occur in mid-October. Some of the discussion involved finding a way to schedule it during a break the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee would take in its public hearings on alleged campaign finance abuses in the last election.

"I believe that we can probably get the agreement tomorrow morning but that is also up to" Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said McCain, R-Ariz. "I believe we can get an agreement."

"We're talking," said Lott, R-Miss. He added, "I just met with the leadership and we have modifications we're working on."

A deal to debate campaign finance legislation would be an achievement for Senate Democrats, who have been clamoring for congressional debate this year on changing a system dominated by the chase for big contributions. Last week Democrats applied pressure, circulating a letter signed by all 45 Democratic senators expressing support for a bill co-sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

Lott and other GOP leaders have been insisting that any consideration of fund-raising reform should wait until after the Governmental Affairs Committee completes its hearings, though Lott softened that stance last week. The panel has focused on possible Democratic fund-raising violations during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Privately, many incumbents of both parties like the current system because historically the preponderance of contributions by political action committees and individuals usually go incumbent officeholders.

The current McCain-Feingold bill would ban soft money, the unrestricted contributions going to political parties, and offer other incentives for politicians to curb their campaign spending.

McCain said a new version under discussion with GOP leaders would also let union members demand a refund of the portion of their dues used for political activity, a provision Lott has insisted on.

To lessen the advantage of wealthy candidates, the legislation would limit aid from political parties to Senate hopefuls who spend more than $50,000 of their own money on their campaigns.

In a hint of the activity going on behind the scenes, there was an unusual flurry Thursday in which a McCain-Feingold press conference was scheduled to announce a breakthrough, but then abruptly canceled without explanation. Feingold's office also issued a press release saying Feingold, McCain and Lott would soon discuss the topic on the Senate floor - only to have Lott's office deny that such comments were planned.

"They jumped the gun," Lott said of McCain and Feingold.

In the House, where GOP leaders also oppose immediate action on fund-raising overhaul, Democrats are using delaying tactics in protest.

Opponents of campaign-finance overhaul like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., say any restrictions on fund raising or political advertising would violate First Amendment free speech rights.

So far, only two other Senate Republicans besides McCain - Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Fred Thompson of Tennessee - have expressed support for McCain-Feingold, leaving supporters at least two votes short of a majority if all of the Senate's Democrats vote in favor of it.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.